Friday, December 19, 2014

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Leviticus 13

Your assignment for this week was to read as much of Leviticus 13 as you could.
This is the law of leprosy, it affects men and women alike, and a person with leprosy is tameh.
What are people unsuitable for when they are tameh from leprosy?
From living with other people who do not have leprosy. 
There are four really important issues that come up due to this chapter.  One is that there are degrees of being tameh which define whether something you touch becomes tameh from that touch.
The chain is not infinite, it ends at four hops.  The more severe the source is considered, the more hops its tamut can take.  The person who is tameh with leprosy is called an av ha-tumah, a first degree of tameh; the same for a house that is declared leprous.  A person coming into that house possibly may be declared leprous under certain conditions; a leper coming into a house can make the house tameh under certain conditions.
Also, tumah is not eternal.  One way to end it is by prescribed procedures including a positive action and a waiting period.  The other is to change the object so that the specifications in Mishnah no longer consider it capable of being tameh.
This goes along with my definition of tameh as being unsuitable for a given purpose.  The specifications for changing an object render it unsuitable for its ordinary purpose.  If the object is ever returned to a specification suitable for that purpose, it once again returns to being tameh.
The best example is a story.  Queen Shalomtsiyon Alexandra (died 67 BCE) was getting ready for a party for one of her sons.  She had cleaned all her glassware, and it was rendered tameh.  She had it all broken into pieces so small it couldn’t be used for its usual purpose.  That was fine.  But she didn’t have the ability to buy all new glassware.  So she had it melted down and re-cast into new glassware.  That was not fine.  Immediately the glassware returned to its status as tameh.  Her own brother Shimon ben Shetach was a rabbi at the time.  Why she didn’t consult him first is not stated, but at one point he went into hiding due to persecution from her husband.
Situations in which something is no longer useful for its ordinary purpose include not just breakage; fabric ripped to a size of three palms long per side is not useful for clothing any more, and it’s only useful as a patch if you don’t care that the color doesn’t match the rest of the fabric (it would be from a different dyelot, or it might be old and faded).  You can take the positive action (immersion) to make it tahor and join it to other tahor pieces to make a quilt, according to the experts who have so patiently answered questions for me over the years.
Understand: defining tumah as not currently useable for its ordinary purpose leads directly to this result.  Once a utensil or piece of cloth is changed to something that is unuseable for its ordinary purpose, you no longer have to worry whether it’s tahor or tameh.  You’re not saying that it’s grime free or that it’s germ free.  You’re saying that you don’t care any more because its ordinary purpose has been voided out. 
You don’t get that result by considering tahor/tameh to be about hygiene.  In fact if the queen had boiled her glassware or treated it with chlorine to get rid of the germs, that still wouldn’t have made it tahor because the prescription for making it tahor was scouring and immersion in a mikveh.   She excused herself from doing that saying she didn’t have time – but she did have time to call in a glass maker and have a fire gotten hot enough to melt the glass down and so on.  She paskened for herself.
Now we’ll go to the third great principle on the subject of tumah and that’s for next week.  To prepare, read Leviticus 14, especially verses 33 through 49.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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